Three deaths have been confirmed by gardaí following an explosion at a petrol station in Co Donegal on Friday afternoon.
The blast destroyed the service station and a section of an apartment block, resulting in a major collapse at the Applegreen garage on the outskirts of the village of Creeslough.
Garda sources said the emergency services were on Friday evening working to locate and free people still believed to be trapped in the wreckage of the explosion. Digging equipment was being used to sift through the rubble at the scene on Friday evening, and nightlights put in place to facilitate an overnight search.
An eyewitness at the scene who spoke to The Irish Times described a covered body being taken from the site of the blast, while another person had significant burn injuries.
An uninjured person was seen being taken down by ladder from the upstairs of the apartment block.
Among those gathered at the scene cordon on Friday night were relatives of people believed to have been in the buildings at the time. Sniffer dogs were being used amid the rubble.
Roads into Creeslough village were cordoned off on Friday afternoon. The explosion happened at the Applegreen service station on the outskirts of the village, which is around 25 km (16 miles) from the town of Letterkeny.
Several ambulances and fire brigades attended the scene. The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has dispatched a specialist rescue team along with specialist officers to the scene. A number of cars have been damaged as a result of falling debris.
The force of the blast, shortly after 3pm, was so strong that it shattered windows in a number of nearby buildings. Gardai set up a roadblock to keep people away from the scene for fear of any further explosions.
A 6km airspace restriction was imposed over Creeslough. The Irish Coast Guard base at Howth on Friday evening set up a landing zone in the Phoenix Park for inbound helicopters from Sligo Coast Guard and Donegal’s Mulroy Coast Guard, but this was stood down around 9pm.
Helicopters ferried the injured from a campsite close to the scene of the explosion to the hospital in Letterkenny some 25km away. While the campsite was open at the time of the blast, locals said there would have been very few visitors staying there given the time of year.
The service station is owned by the local Lafferty family. Danny Martin Lafferty runs the shop while his sister Annette operates the post office just adjacent to the service station. Nether were injured in the blast.
The complex, which sits at the entrance to the village coming from the Termon direction, houses a number of other small businesses, including a hairdressing salon.
The complex also contains several apartments above the service station’s shop which house a number of young families. Large parts of the facade of the upstairs apartment complex was ripped off during the explosion. Inside, passers-by could see beds and pictures hanging from walls.
A major emergency plan was activated at on Friday afternoon at Letterkenny University Hospital, and it appealed to the public not to come to the Emergency Department unless necessary.
A spokesperson for the hospital said: “Letterkenny University Hospital is dealing with a serious incident, with multiple injured people requiring immediate attention. The hospital has moved to Major Emergency Standby as it deals with this incident.”
Donegal gardaí asked members of the public to refrain from ringing the hospital, except for matters of critical importance, due to a high volume of calls.
A local hotel stopped taking bookings from members of the public to ensure all spare rooms were held for first responders.
Local parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy said it was a “tragedy beyond belief” and “the heart has been torn out of our community”.
He told RTÉ's 9 O’Clock News: “It is devastating, shocking and numbing. There are no words. It is heartbreaking.”
The Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian said he witnessed workmen trying to rescue people from the rubble. “It is shocking beyond words. We want to be here for the people who may get terrible news tonight.”
Kieran Gallagher, a local resident, said he heard an explosion about 3.30pm on Friday afternoon. “It sounded like a bomb going off. I knew something tragic had happened.”
Mr Gallagher said people from communities around Creeslough had visited the scene to help local people. “We have to be strong and tied together and help each other.”
Presbyterian minister Reverend Susan Moore said she felt “shocked and so sad” for the community and her thoughts were with those waiting for news of loved ones.
Sinn Fein TD and local representative Pearse Doherty was at the scene on Friday evening and he described it as “absolutely appalling”.
“There is an eerie silence that is being broken by the machines slowly moving the rubble away trying to reach those who are still trapped,” he said. Some people caught up in the blast were able to make contact with family and friends using their mobiles and the focus was on reaching them as quickly and as safely as possible.
“This is the only shop in the village,” Mr Doherty told The Irish Times. “But it is not just a shop, it is also the post office, the deli and the hairdressers. And the explosion happened shortly after 3pm when children had just come out of school and it is pension day. This is a very busy spot.”
Former Minister for Education and Fine Gael Deputy Joe McHugh joined those at the scene of the tragedy on Friday evening. Mr McHugh, who lives in nearby Carrigart, said it was simply surreal what had happened.
He said those who were at the scene were just numb. As specialist recovery workers sifted through the wreckage of the building, Mr McHugh said it was simply a “waiting game”.
“I came over as soon as I heard what happened because I would know a lot of the people in the area obviously.
“I wanted just to be here with those people and offer them my support. We are thinking of them and all the people and relations who are affected by this tragedy in this close-knit community.
“There is a numbness here and people are simply in a state of shock. It’s a waiting game now,” he said.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin tweeted “My thoughts and prayers are tonight with the entire community of Creeslough following today’s devastating explosion. Thinking too of all the emergency services, from across the north-west and NI working in very traumatic situation.”
Later he issued a statement saying, “My thoughts and prayers are today with those who have lost their lives, and those injured in the devastating explosion in Creeslough. I wish to express my deepest sympathies to their family, and friends, and to the entire community of Creeslough, on this darkest of days for Donegal and the entire country.”
Thrown from seat
One local man who lives just a kilometre from the scene and spoke to The Irish Times said he was thrown from his seat as he worked at his desk.
“I couldn’t believe the power of it and I didn’t know what had happened. We drove into town and it was just carnage.
“There was no ambulances or gardaí at the scene at that stage because it had literally just happened.
“I saw one person on the ground and they looked as if they were dead.
“Miraculously, we saw another man in the upstairs apartment and he actually wasn’t uninjured at all and he came down on a ladder.”
Speaking to the Radio Ulster on Friday evening, Donegal Independent councillor John O’Donnell described the scene as “chaos”.
“Everybody is very taken aback and devastated at what is happening,” he said.
“There is a large-scale rescue operation underway and it is something that we haven’t seen in the area in my lifetime. It’s very traumatising for everybody,” Mr O’Donnell said.
Local councillor Donal Mandy Kelly told the PA news agency it was “devastating news”. He said: “My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved.”
Fiona Matthews, Applegreen Ireland managing director issued a statement late last night, saying: “We are deeply saddened and shocked to learn the devasting news that lives have been lost in today’s tragic incident at Applegreen Creeslough in Co Donegal. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the deceased, those who have been injured, and the wider Creeslough community.”
Gardaí said on Friday that the emergency response was led by the Donegal County Council Fire Service with assistance from An Garda Síochána, the National Ambulance Service, Irish Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Rescue 118 Helicopter, Irish Air Corps Medivac 112, Northern Ireland Ambulance HEMS, Irish Community Air Ambulance (Ground Crew), Northern Ireland Urban Search and Rescue, Meavagh Fire Service, Donegal Mountain Rescue, Northern Ireland Ambulance Service HART team (Hazardous Area Response Team) and the Donegal County Council Civil Defence. The operation is ongoing.
A statement on the Donegal GAA website last night said: “The prayers of all Donegal gaels are with the community of Creeslough tonight. All adult GAA games this weekend are postponed.” It added: “The extent of fatalities and injuries at the terrible explosion this evening is not yet clear but there is little doubt that a tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding. The thoughts and prayers of everyone involved with CLG Dhún na nGall are with the community of Creeslough, the hardworking emergency services and the Gaels of CLG Naomh Micheál at this terrible time.”
Motorsport Ireland and the Donegal Motor Club has postponed the Donegal Harvest Rally, which was due to take place on Saturday. — Additional reporting PA